Aram Jabbari's rather intimidating E3 2009 interview is probably still deeply entrenched in the minds of any would-be soul hunters. The almost frighteningly serious look on his face as he calmly, forcefully states, "You will die," has probably already scared many people away. And there is good cause for that. Demon's Souls, from what I saw and was able to experience first-hand, is a really, really scary game.
Even watching the game, you get an incredible sense of fear that few games manage to accomplish. There are powerful monsters lurking around every corner. They're fast, they hit hard, and they generally have grotesque, disturbing appearances. The game has a very western aesthetic, and seems particularly steeped in the dark ages rather than a traditional fantasy world. Further, it has a very ethereal nature to it that's hard to describe.
Death is a major aspect of the game, and dying means losing your body and becoming a wandering soul. As a soul, your character is enveloped is a glowing sort of aura, and you suffer a rather significant health penalty, making the game even harder than it was before. Getting your body back isn't easy, either, as it requires either finding a rare item, defeating a boss, or breaking into another player's game and taking their body away from them. It seems that players can expect to play as a soul for most of the game. Luckily, death is never a game over in Demon's Souls. Instead, you merely begin at the beginning of the area you were last exploring. However, you do lose all the experience you may have gained during that last venture, and if you die before you reach your former body (or the remains of your soul, I suppose), that experience is lost forever.
As you explore the game's world, other ethereal qualities appear, the most noticable of which is the visages of other players. As the game was demonstrated, you could clearly see white, ghostly outlines of other players who were actively playing the game elsewhere in the world. You could see where they were going and what they were doing, until eventually they would fade away. Even more disturbing, nearly everywhere were the bloodstained remains of other players who had died, and by examining them, a similar vision would appear, this time blood red; a recording of how that player met a grisly fate. These, in particular, were frightening to watch, because you only saw the player. In one case, a player was lifted up into the air and you could clearly see something strike its body hard before it slumped over and faded from sight.
While clearly designed to strike fear into the hearts of those just venturing into a new area, the bloodstains also provide the player with vital tactical information, possibly informing them of enemies that may be just ahead, or how not to go about fighting them. Other players can actively attempt to help each other as well by leaving messages on the ground. These messages seem surprisingly helpful, providing warnings or hints for pretty much anything, all determined by a helpful, easy to navigate menu of predetermined words and phrases - no manual typing required. One message encountered in the demonstration simply said "Up." Despite its simplicity, it was clear warning of a nearby trio of snipers which would have otherwise caused an unfortunate death.
With a game so heavily focused on death and dying, it's fortunate that there are so many cool ways to die. In addition to some of the frightening premonitions seen in the bloodstain visions, as expected, the demonstration character also experienced a few deaths, some quite spectacular. In one, the character was paralyzed by a magic spell, lifted up, and then run through with a long, vicious-looking rapier. Although most of the demonstration was played by one of Atlus's QA team members, I was able to take the reins for a short time and got to experience my own spectacular death. As I was fighting a monster, I was knocked back, off a ledge, and plunged helplessly into a deep, dark abyss, which swallowed the screen until the mocking words "You have died," appeared.
How about now?
The most interesting and awe-striking features of Demon's Souls are unquestionably its online components. They are, quite simply, unique. There is no other game that handles online like this, in that it is pretty much constant. It's practically an MMO, and yet it's a single player experience at the same time; you can play offline, forgoing the online enchancements, but the experience just won't be the same.
So, for the sake of a game that seems to be very unique and very intriguing, I will now attempt to quell any fears you may have about the difficulty. First, the game seems to be designed very heavily around the concept of the player dying, and pains have been taken to make it feel less like a frustration and more like a learning experience. The movements of enemies are very blatant and usually quite slow. There is always time to react, there is always a place to prepare for an upcoming battle, and it seems, in many ways, to be a game of wits as much as a game of skill. The bosses that were demonstrated all had very obvious attack patterns, and you could clearly see when they were getting ready to attack. The game is quite unforgiving if you screw up, as enemies hit hard, and beating a hasty retreat is going to be a regular occurance, but at the same time, it never seemed to be cheap or cheesy. It will be very clear what happened, what went wrong, and what you can do in your next attempt to conquer it.
Secondly, as far as breaking into peoples' games and murdering them, it is, thankfully, a limited ability. For starters, your game cannot be broken into until reaching a certain point, making the early levels something of a safe haven. In addition, your game can only be broken into if you have a body. This is a very significant piece of information to keep in mind, as having and not having a body is probably the most important concept in the game. Because a body is so difficult to acquire, having one definitely paints a target on your head. This is simply a disadvantage that comes with the benefits it provides. But because you lose your body once you're killed, it's impossible for anyone to be "griefed" or "camped," during their play experience. You'll be killed once and then left alone until you manage to acquire a new body, perhaps through the same means. As one final limitation, it seems that breaking into a person's game is only possible if your current location is fairly close to theirs. This provides a nice element of limited PvP that shouldn't seem overbearing to anyone.
The player is likewise given a surprising amount of control over the co-op elements. One item that was shown during the demonstration provided a way of kicking unwanted players out of the game. Unfortunately, while Atlus was able to describe these elements to us in terrific detail, we were unable to find a player in Asia to do any actual multiplayer with. While we saw plenty of them as visions, we weren't able to get a co-op or PvP session going, which may be an unfortunate foreshadowing of the ultimate English experience; until we see the size of the North American userbase, it's difficult to say how easy or hard it will be to get these elements running.
Demon's Souls is undoubtedly going to be a very hard game, but at the same time, it seems like the sort of game you can easily get lost in for hours on end. It's the sort of game you can beat your head against for hours and it's still fun. The atmosphere alone should provide thrills enough to satisfy anybody. While our hand's on time with the game was unfortunately fairly short, we should have an opportunity to play more in the near, post-Run to the Sun future, so keep your eyes peeled for a more detailed impression.